Monday, November 27, 2006

Oganic beauty good enough to eat

DD One

A number of years ago, I saw a picture in a magazine of an outdoor table set for lunch. It was completely covered in deep moss from the woods with pots of daffodils nestled into the moss at the center. It looked very organic and I imagined it smelled of that wonderful earthy-musk that wafts up when you mess about in the woods on a damp day. It was beautiful; all green and soft. The place settings were also nestled in making it look like it was set for a feast for woods fairies.

But it’s winter here and pretty cold at the moment. I’m afraid a mossy table will not be our lot for this holiday season. Do not despair! Along with poinsettias, garlands and Christmas cactus, much can be done to bring the beauty of growing things to our holiday festivities.

Artichokes or pomegranates, for example, make fabulous candle holders! Both of these are rich in texture and color. Use an apple corer to make a hole in the top about 1 ¼ inches deep. The Pomegranates can be placed directly on the table but you’ll have to cut off the bottom of the artichokes to make them sit flat, so they will have to rest on little plates to protect the cloth or table.

A four inch container of wheat grass can also be magical. Remove the planted grass from its plastic growing pot (it will be all root), shove it into a four inch terra/cotta pot and place a candle in the middle. Simple beauty at it’s best! Try serving kabobs or other squired hors d’oeuvres poked into these pots of grass; it’s a lovely presentation. If you’re inclined, you can even grow your own for almost nothing. Plant wheat seed very thickly in a pot about one month before an event. Keep in the window or under a grow light. It’s best to use at about 3 inches high.

Napkins look elegant tied up in a bit of raffia or satin ribbon, with a tiny birch or spruce sprig tucked under the tie. Holly sprigs, rosemary and other herbs work as well, as do any number of small peppers. But don't use anything poisonous! All-in-all, a nasty thing to put on the table! If you use place setting cards or menu cards, a couple of holes punched along the side or top of the card will allow a birch or herb sprig to be slipped through. Any of these simple touches will warm your holiday feasts and help satisfy the urge to be surrounded by growing things on these frigid days. Even a basket of fresh fruits or veggies can do wonders for a table in mid-winter!

Another great tactic for a festive table is making brightly colored foods. A few suggestions would be things in greens, reds and oranges such as fresh cranberry sauces and chutneys, biscuits and bread made out of sweet potatoes, yams, or carrots; and avocado bisques. Sweet potatoes, yams, and beets also make yummy mashed dishes, just like potatoes, and are so pretty to look at. Yes, mashed beats! They are so good you’ll wonder why you never ate them before.
Try this: Pick out fresh, preferably organic, beets and trim off the tops and the root. Put in boiling water with about ½ cup kosher salt (yes, that’s right, ½ cup!) and ½ cup lemon juice. These additions will keep the flavor and color in tack and are essential for a great tasting beet. Boil until tender enough to mash. Slip the peelings at this point, and mash with a little fresh pepper and butter. Do not add cream! Cream is tasty, but it will turn your lovely colored beats into a shocking, Pepto- bismal pink that is indeed unappetizing.

Pumpkin or carrot soups and borsch are also a feast for the eyes as well as the tummy. They are perfectly suited for first course fare at even the most elegant meal. Once again the humble vegetable rises to a place of honor!

Pears poached in mulling spices and dark red wines, or peaches poached in a clear vanilla syrup make excellent, colorful endings. Likewise, apple currant tarts or candied lime, lemon and orange peels are most satisfying with coffee or tea at the end of a grand banquet.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Gardeners take care of their own

DD One

Gardeners preserve and pass on techniques, seeds and secrets. In fact, gardeners love to give. We give starts from the greenhouse, seedlings from the garden, prizes for garden fairs, demonstrations to whoever will watch, exchange seeds like maniacs, and offer way more free advice than anyone wants to hear. It is difficult to visit a gardener without loading the back of the car with diggings, cuttings and what ever else happens to jump in while the trunk is open.

Sometimes we give because one of our fellow gardeners is in need. So it is with tomorrow’s fundraising event being hosted by the Mat Su Master Gardeners and non-other than your own, The Dirt Divas. We have fallen gardeners out there folks, and we need to lift them up in our soiled hands and show them what this community is all about.

Here is their tale. Michael and Hally Truelove are simple gardeners who love the earth. Hally loves her flowers and herbs, Michael, his apple trees. They have been members of the Mat Su Chapter of the Master Gardeners for years and both have worked in the garden industry here in the Valley. Michael is an import from Wales, who fell in love with Alaska (and Hally) while here on a family holiday nearly 20 years ago. Together they are raising children whose love of gardening is second nature. Hally was instrumental, two years ago, in forming the first-ever Alaskan Junior Master Gardener club here in the Valley. Michael has permanently placed his mark while helping to plant a number of lovely gardens throughout the valley with his work in the landscaping industry. Michael and Hally are not unlike all of us who love to garden, always working hard, always trying one more type of apple tree.

But even surrounded by growing beauty, things can go wrong. A year and a half ago Michael was diagnosed with a rare, particularly gruesome form of skin cancer. It has brought unrest into their home and introduced the color of pain into their green world. These everyday gardeners now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of needing help. As with most ravaging diseases, this one has taken a financial toll on the families resources. And that’s where the rest of us gardeners come into the picture. We can not change Michael’s chances with this disease, but we can do what we do best, give.

So in this spirit, we have asked the Art community to join with us in a fund raising gala to help the Truelove family, and it has quickly shaped into a must-do event. A dinner catered by Stonehill Gardens will feature their always yummy soups, fresh pastas and ever-popular breads. Heck, if you’re a bread lover (and who isn’t) it would be worth coming for this alone. Six specialty varieties will be baked up for the occasion! After eating, event goers can nibble on pastries and drink coffee or wild mint tea while bidding on dozens of art and garden related items that have been donated for the silent auction.

Among the artists to be represented will be potters Dennis McKenzie, Leonard Peck and Robin McClain, felter Salley Combs, wood artist Brooke Heppinstall and photographer Christine Kendrick. Too many tantalizing things to list include great fiber arts such as quilts, hats, sweaters and shawls. Books, art stationary, hand made soaps, Alaskan birch syrups, jams, jelly’s and fine wines will grace the auction tables. Greenhouse and Nursery gift certificates will make great Christmas gifts as will quilting and felting do-it-yourself projects. There will be garden benches of birch and cedar, garden art, bolga gardening baskets and twig art. Many generous merchants have donated a variety of top of the line gift baskets. As if this wasn’t enough, our neighbors in Anchorage have kicked in with Concert Association tickets, Opera tickets, gift certificates from Orso and The Brewhause and more!

In short: if you want to give back, if you need Christmas gifts, if you want a good meal – don’t miss this one! Monday (tomorrow) in the social Hall of the United Protestant-Presbyterian Church in Palmer – the log church across from the borough building - at 6pm. Donations will be taken at the door for the dinner. Silent auction for all who want to participate. If you can’t attend you can donate directly by calling 745-7071 for more details. Come with a hungry tummy and a generous heart. Come to give.

If you are reading this on-line and would like to contribute, please send donation to Truelove Benefit Fund, and send it to PO Box 2876, Palmer Alaska, - 99645; c/o Stonehill Gadens. You will recieve a tax-deductable reciept in return. Make sure you include the 'c/o' on the address or it may not get to us.

Thanks so much all you gardeners! All large efforts are made up of many samll ones.